As the digital age races towards its peak, the glut of information in our lives creates a suffocating chaos. Globalization continues to shrinks the world, and new ideas are spun at an alarming rate and are available at our fingertips. Yet, as the world revolves at super speed, it diminishes the lifespan of each new snippet of information we receive, in turn compromising its value. Sajjad Ahmed’s latest solo exhibition at the Sanat Gallery inadvertently brings some of these ideas to the fore.
“Spirit of Visual” was a pertinent exhibit as it not only displayed the artists latest explorations of his more formalist leanings, but also because the audience was able to place these works within the context of the rest of his oeuvre. The exhibition was accompanied by a monograph of the artist published by Sanat Initiative, who plan to do a series of these, choosing a new artist each year. The book allows an insight into the artist’s extensive practice and the trajectory of his ideas, mapping his journey to the current set of works.
Two works that stand out from the rest are perhaps “A Capitalist Dream” and “The Spirit of Capitalism(I)”, mostly because of their thematic contrast with the rest of the works. The former shows a portrait of the face of communism, Mao Zedong, with his face scratched over with a burst of colorful shapes almost like a digital glitch. This is a comment on the interesting dynamics of capitalism and communism, a conversation that the artist started in the work “A Capitalist Hit” (2008). The latter is similar to a previous work, “God of Small Things V” (2013) featuring industrial freight containers neatly arranged in a colorful rectangular wall, almost like a congregation of the world’s wants and desires creating a capitalist version of the world map.
Beyond this, however, the works obtain a more formal language, inhabiting an intuitive quality. Serene landscapes and video loops of fluttering clouds emanate a sense of tranquility. While the artist has previously shifted his narrative to a purely formal aesthetic, it has never been so completely minimalized and abstracted, as seen in the oil and acrylic on canvas works which play with line, shape and color in the style of Piet Mondrian and Frank Stella.
However, the artist is exploring a space between the abstract and representational, questioning where one ends and the other begins. In “A Slice of Time (I)” the graduating hues are at the same time a study of color, and a view of a cloudless sky at different times of the day. “Being & Nothingness (XVIII)” goes a step further and offers the slightest hint of a recognizable object – the tip of a plane wing or the edge of a building – to provide the viewer with context. What is at first an abstract color field is now transformed into a skyscape.
In other works the artist explores deeper ideas of digitization while further playing around with formal landscape. “Being & Nothingness (XV)” displays an idyllic view of the seashore blurred out into bands of subdued color and divided up into separate squares that enforce a grid upon the image. From a distance this reads as a hazy image, but upon closer inspection horizontal lines become apparent, artifacts of a digitized representation. This is perhaps a comment on the digital reproduction of reality, and whether that can ever hold the same kind of visual integrity.
During a discussion of the artist’s works at the Gallery, a criticism was raised by one of the audience members accusing the artist for trying to talk about too many ideas at once, ending up with a kind of visual chaos. This was particularly ironic since so much of the artists previous works seem to deal with the devaluation of words and images in the age of free flowing information.
The artist explained the ways in which the formal works connect with the rest of his practice, form always being a visual concern that runs through all of his works. It is true that the abstracted linear paintings were in visual consensus with works like “The Spirit of Capitalism (I)”, and “Being & Nothingness (XV)” set in the visual field of “Being & Nothingness (XXIII)” brought to notice the similarities in composition. Yet upon a closer reading of the artists previous concerns, these formal studies don’t feel all that conceptually out of place either, and a connection emerges that goes deeper than the perceptual ones.
To say that Ahmed’s work is about capitalism or globalization is grossly oversimplifying it and confining it within a hashtag or an “ism”. The underlying thread that runs throughout his practice looks at the imprints of these phenomena on our society – the devaluation of words, emotions, and people, the commercialization and consumption of art as commodity, the demotion of human experience in the age of mass information and viral headline, the loss of substance for the sake of entertainment. As these works are seen as emerging from this tragic chaos, they read almost as an escape for the artist. The works represent silence within the digital noise, they are an opportunity for the artist to express himself without contamination of the pressure of selling controversy or ideology. These works then become a reaction to the rest of his practice, seeking to correct all that the artist has come to criticize.